Decriminalization in Spain

Future Hindsight
4 min readJul 2, 2021


This week we’re talking all things substance-related with psychologist and Columbia professor Carl L. Hart. In his new book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear, he outlines a bold new approach to drug use in America. If we are indeed the land of the free, he argues, we need to act like it when it comes to drug policy.

“The Declaration of Independence lays out these ideals of these promises that each of our citizens are entitled to, and Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness is one,” he told Mila. “If people choose to use drugs in their Pursuit of Happiness, so long as they’re not bothering other people or disrupting other people’s ability to pursue their rights, that is a right that is protected, and it’s inconsistent with our American ideals to prevent people from altering their consciousness or pursuing happiness as they see fit.”

Hart advocates for legalization and government regulation of all drugs, including heroin, cocaine, and various amphetamines. He argues that such legalization would rapidly decrease the deaths associated with substances, thanks to increased education, reduced stigma, and the ability to regulate the quality of these drugs.

While legalization may seem to be a moonshot, decriminalization is another — much more feasible — option. Decriminalization alone is not enough, but it would still be a huge step in the right direction. Already many US states have decriminalized marijuana possession, removing criminal penalties for possession but maintaining the illegality of dealing. Despite what critics say, decriminalization doesn’t lead to increased use.

If you don’t believe us, look at Spain. Spain has one of the world’s most permissive drug use policies. According to National Police Spokesman Rafael Jimenez, “If you are consuming any drugs in private, you are not breaking any law. And then if you are caught taking drugs in public places, this is an administrative, not a criminal offense.” Dealing and trafficking illicit substances is still highly illegal, as recent, massive drug busts indicate.

Spain’s laid-back attitude toward substances doesn’t translate to more users or deaths, however. 11% of Spaniards used marijuana in 2017, as opposed to 15% of the American population during the same timeframe. Those same studies showed a national cocaine usage in Spain and America of 2.2% in 2017. Spain saw 0.5% of its population use amphetamines in 2017, while America saw 0.6%. 4.1% of Americans used opiates in 2017 instead of just 0.8% of Spanish citizens, a shockingly disproportionate number that is due to America’s ongoing opioid crisis.

The usage numbers are different, but the approaches couldn’t be farther apart. Today, 25% of incarcerated Americans are behind bars for drug offenses, while in Spain, prisons sit vacant. In 2019, more than 70,000 Americans overdosed, resulting in death, a rate of .0002%. Spain recorded 785 deadly overdoses during that time, a rate of .00001%.

Spain focuses on safety, treatment, and prevention. They provide needles and safe usage spaces for heroin users and even supply drug testing centers, which examine the composition of drugs, in cities like Barcelona. Meanwhile, America spends billions of dollars a year enforcing racist, antiquated drug laws and locking up low-level drug offenders.

It turns out that policies, not drugs, are what kills people at higher rates. Decriminalization and legalization won’t result in massive numbers of new users, but it will save many lives.


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Future Hindsight

Future Hindsight is a weekly podcast that aims to spark civic engagement through in-depth conversations with citizen changemakers.